I'm not sure I've ever been at a carmaker-run auto event that allows so many opportunities for failure. Usually, they set things up to minimize the chances of really screwing up, to protect both the cars' reputations and the fragile auto-journo egos, but this time they're asking us to get 50% better mileage from their cars than the EPA says. Oh boy.
The event is called the Audi TDI Super Fuel-Sipper Tedium Challenge or something like that. Essentially, each team gets a 2015 Audi A3 TDI, 13.2 gallons of rich, creamery Diesel, and a course that meanders around 834 miles from Albuquerque to San Diego. The EPA says this car should get 31 MPG city/43 highway, and 36 combined. To do this run on one tank of diesel, we'll need to average, let's see, carry the two, oh, about 63.18 (repeating) MPG.
To get a solid 50% better gas mileage than the EPA says we'll get, we'll have to employ some hypermiler-style driving techniques, a form of driving that rivals detailed studies of land reapportionment in terms of sheer excitement and joy. Hypermiling is easily the most self-flagellating form of competitive driving. Sure, I respect people that do it well, but it's a tedious, painful process that combines the joy of math with that uncomfortable tense feeling you get when you're desperately trying not to run out of gas.
Still, if I'm going to do this, I'm in it to win it. Or at least not completely lose it. I'm prepared for hours and hours and hours of driving so slow and carefully it will make you seriously contemplate shoving your tongue in the 12V outlet just to feel something, anything.
I'm prepared to drive with no A/C and the windows up until the inside feels like a discarded pair of cycling pants in downtown Dagobah. I'm also prepared to use a special secret technique/tool I brought along that I'm not totally sure is against the rules, so I'm keeping it quiet, for now.
Speaking of the rules, here's the 'TDI Commandments' that were handed down from Mount Hotel Meeting Room on a Golden PowerPoint deck:
Audi's going to be sealing off our fuel fillers to make sure we don't cheat, and as extra incentive, whoever runs out of diesel first will be forced to finish the trek in — and you can tell the Audi guys had fun with this — a manual Ford Aspire. With some dents and a non-matching rear bumper. They did a pretty good job of finding a car that matched that tricky balance of being crappy and uninteresting, all at once.
Still, part of me wouldn't mind making the trip in a 4-speed Aspire. At least then you could drive like a maniac,or at least a normal, sane human, since you've already lost. They also didn't say what will happen to subsequent teams that run out of fuel. I'm guessing they'll just leave us to die in the desert.
Picking a partner for this trip wasn't easy. This is the sort of grueling, tedious trip that could easily find the poor bastard sitting next to me sobbing softly, rocking back and forth and chanting about how much they hate me. So the person has to have just the right frame of mind. Ideally, they should weigh no more than 110 lbs, but these are auto journalists, so good luck with that. And they should be tolerant to road madness.
I think I lucked out: novelist, Jeopardy champ, and sometimes auto writer Neal Pollack agreed to be part of my team, which we're calling the Circumiserz, a nod to our Judaic heritage, lack of extra foreskin weight, and miserly use of fuel. He seems willing to endure the worst hypermiling driving has to dish out, but we'll see what happens come the 600th mile of driving at 54 MPH with the hazards on. That's when the road madness kicks in.
Or, it could be me who snaps first when I just can't take one more lecture about how fantastic yoga is. Or maybe we'll see each other as giant chicken legs and hot dogs, like really hungry people in lifeboats do. We'll just have to see.
Wish me luck, my friends. I hope to report back a glorious, tedious, soul-crushing victory or a desperate cry for help from the desert where Neal has left me, a road-addled zombie shrieking and sobbing every time I hear an engine going over 2000 RPM.